Decadence, not Donald Trump, is defeating the Republican establishment in the primaries.
The dominant wings of the national party—neo-conservatives, as represented by Jeb Bush, John Kasich and several others, and the Tea Party, as represented by Ted Cruz—are simply clueless to the economic and cultural forces transforming America.
Globalization and technology—fair and unfair trade, legal and illegal immigration and automation and artificial intelligence are destroying jobs, lowering wages and rendering obsolete the skills of millions of prime working age Americans.
Coupled with lower birth rates among whites and the absolute failure of educational institutions to keep up with the times, these are creating a poorer, more unequal and radically more ethnically and religiously diverse electorate.
Ivy League and elite state university graduates jump to six figure jobs in engineering, law, finance and the like, while the much larger army of diplomates from non-descript private and state colleges are often not decently prepared for entry-level professional and managerial positions still available in our slow growing economy. For example, working as an insurance claims adjuster, managing a clothing department at Macy’s or teaching grade school.
Too many end up loaded with debt and selling smart phones, serving coffee or no job at all.
For high school graduates, conditions are even worse. Most don’t qualify for burgeoning opportunities in medical, technology and other fields.
Consequently, 23 million adults between 25 and 54—too old for college and too young to be retired—are neither working nor looking for work. They simply live off relatives and government benefits.
With robots having the potential to replace 90 percent of all occupations—from carpenters to dentists by 2030, the enormous challenge of preparing most Americans for meaningful and decent paying work is only beginning.
America no longer has a cultural or political center—the white, Christian, two-parent family aspiring to suburban serenity and accomplishing middle-class security—is fast becoming a minority. That’s why John Kasich prevails only in Ohio and Ted Cruz cannot win primaries outside a few southern and western-rural states or quite white Wisconsin.
Campaign talk of tax cuts, free trade, bans on abortion and gay marriage, and repealing Obamacare may appeal to the keepers of right-wing orthodoxy at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference but simply has little resonance with voters earning too little to pay meaningful federal income taxes, or afford more expensive necessities at Wal-Mart, a decent home or health insurance without a $5000 deductible.
History teaches that frustrated expectations and rising inequality—falling average family incomes alongside twenty-something Wall Street traders and software developers earning vast sums—is a highly combustible combination. The man on the white horse usually provides the match—often in the form of nationalism and scapegoats.
Enter Donald Trump with tough talk—and little substance—about leveling the playing field with China, closing the border with Mexico, banning Muslim immigration and rude remarks about successful women. Those appeal to economically disenfranchised white males and women who depend on them, and who compose just enough of Republican primary voters to give him a plurality of delegates in Cleveland.
Hillary Clinton has demagoguery of her own to cobble a majority in the general election. Appealing to disparate fragments of the voters by defending affirmative action—which sentences blacks to dependency on liberal white politicians—offering debt free college—which would do little to fix college curriculums that don’t impart marketable skills—and promising to destroy an already fast disappearing gender gap in opportunity— young women are getting 60 percent of the college degrees and often earn more than young men.
Clinton rallies supporters to end white male preference, while Trump seeks to resurrect it.
Neither, if elected, will take the country forward—just leave it more disaffected and divided—but the Republican establishment remain clueless and indifferent to the ground shifting beneath its feet.
Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. He tweets @pmorici1